Tuesday, February 02, 2010

James Joyce: Comedy, and Irony as Principle-Weapon

(Or: Toward the Resurrection of Irony)

James Joyce, by César Abin. Image found here.

Today is James Joyce's birthday, and before the day slips away any further, I wanted to start a conversation that I hope will honor him.

In case anyone is wondering, "Principle-Weapon" is intentional.

Some assertions, in no particular order:

*Joyce was often very funny, but his mode was not humor but comedy.

*To quote one of my college English profs: "Comedy is deadly serious."

*Comedy's great subject is the Life Force: the affirmation, preservation and perpetuation of life--hence its seriousness. Its word is Love; its creed is Molly Bloom's final Yes; its churches are the conjugal bed and the kitchen; its parish the front porch.

*Irony is comedy's greatest weapon, exposing, when wielded most effectively, that which does not affirm the Life Force (hence, "principle-weapon").

[UPDATE: Here's an example of what I mean: In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's stand-in) is explaining to his friend Cranley why he (Stephen) has lost his faith. Cranley thinks Stephen's disaffection is with Catholicism and sxo asks him why he doesn't become a Protestant. Stephen's response: "`I said that I had lost my faith,' Stephen said, `but not that I had lost my self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?'" Whatever one may think of Stephen's assessment of the doctrine of being saved by grace through faith, that line always makes me, a good Lutheran, both laugh out loud and ponder a bit.]

*Irony would not be dead if people still accepted that the preservation and perpetuation of life were not merely a Grand Narrative to be suspicious of and instead is and remains both a sacred and a secular Ultimate Concern.

(Inspired by and in part quoted from my response to Jim at this post.)


emawkc said...

The only Joyce work I've read is Dubliners. I've heard it's the most "accessible" of his books. But it's probably time I tackle some of his other work.

Thanks to you it's on the list. Just have to finish the compilation of Salinger short stories I picked up at the used book store the other day.

How is it that you're assigning reading to me and I'm not even one of your students?

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by.
Oh, that I had the same influence over my students that seem to have over you.

I first tried to read Portrait when I was in high school. At the time, I knew nothing about turn-of-the-century Irish politics or Catholicism (and still don't know much, except through Joyce), so it was rough going, and I (still) don't pretend I get everything going on it. But as an example of skill and precision with language--that, I grasped instantly. Read some passages from it aloud, especially the first few pages. Magical.

R. Sherman said...

I've got to think about this a bit, if for no other reason than I do not wish to sound like and idiot.


John B. said...

You won't. And, moreover, I hope someone will push back a little to force me to think more (care)fully about some of these things. I have some ideas about all this, of course, but I'd prefer to wait a bit so they sound at least doughy rather than half-baked.

Jim Sligh said...

Your definition of comedy as principle-weapon reminds me of this paragraph from a slacktavist reading of the Left Behind left behind series I cut-&-pasted into a text edit file a month or two ago:

"Comedy is essentially revolutionary. This scene is counter-revolutionary. That's never funny. Everything in these pages is about reasserting hierarchy and punishing anyone who challenges it. That's never funny either.

"The jester is funny because he mocks the king. He deflates the over-inflated and humbles the proud. This is what comedy does. It's what comedy is for. It brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; it fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. (Mary knew from funny.)"

This is the theory behind the response I have (digressing) to the sort of person who argues that, say, you can't like Dave Chappelle's white television newsman and criticize blackface.

Anonymous said...

That slaktavist passage, especially the second paragraph, is crucial, and it echoes something I feel poking at me from within: That Christianity (or something essential about it) is comedic in its nature. It's clearly present in Mary's Magnificat; and here's Paul, crystallizing the essence of the meaning of Jesus: The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. The very title of the Left Behind books tells you that its writers (and readers) have forgotten that the other meaning for "apocalypse" is "revelation"--in the sense of a new order. New life. (And I also wish people would remember that no less an authority than Jesus himself says, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (What I've quoted here isn't the entirety of what's at the link--read you all of it.)

Enough of that (for now). I'll just say for now that I wish the face of Christianity--or of any religion, for that matter--that gets the most media attention these days were a more comedic one.

John B. said...

Hmm--That last comment was/is mine: John B.'s. Not sure how it became that all-time most prolific writer's . . .